Inside the visit: Mound conversations vary widely
Skippers, pitching coaches utilize humor, anger, irony to get pitchers back on track
Perhaps the line doesn't rank up there with the most iconic of all time, but for baseball fans, it's still pretty unforgettable.
The scene from this particular movie is famous for a couple of reasons. First, simply, it's just funny. And second, deep down, aren't we all kind of hoping something close to this happens in real-life baseball?
We're talking, of course, about the "candlesticks" scene from the 1988 hit, "Bull Durham."
To review: Nuke LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, is on the mound, and he's nervous. His dad is in the stands watching, and much to Nuke's chagrin, Pops LaLoosh is standing and waving in that cringe-inducing, proud-dad kind of way.
Nuke's struggling to throw strikes, and his catcher, the wise but crusty veteran Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner, ambles out to the mound to check on his battery mate.
Soon, the infielders wander over to join in on the conversation. On its face, the exchange looks important. In truth, it has nothing to do with the game situation. The players are instead focused on those other important real-life hot topics, like Jimmy and Millie's engagement and the hex Jose's girlfriend has put on his glove.
Watching from the dugout and seemingly unable to read lips, the manager (Trey Wilson) tells the pitching coach (Robert Wuhl) to go out and see what's up. The exchange:
Crash: "Nuke's scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man is here. We need a live rooster, was it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove. And nobody seems to know what to give Millie and Jimmy for their wedding present. Is that about right?"
Pitching coach: "Candlesticks always make a nice gift. And, maybe you can find out where she's registered, maybe a placesetting, or maybe a silverware pattern is good."
Sure, the scene is exaggerated. It's Hollywood, after all. But it raises a question that to this day still seems to be a source of curiosity for fans: What the heck do managers and coaches say when they run out to the mound to talk to the pitcher?
Most of the time -- one coach estimated a 70-30 ratio -- the conversations are indeed about strategy. But there are times when a visit to the mound is designed not so much to go over hitters or the game situation, but simply to diffuse potentially bad circumstances before they get out of hand.
Sometimes a skipper just needs to remind his pitcher to chill out. Or, as Tigers manager Jim Leyland phrased it, "Make a tense situation an un-tense situation."
How pitchers are approached largely depends on the circumstances and the personalities of the manager or coach. For argument's sake, let's separate them into five categories:
Tactic 1: The "I have somewhere to be later" plea
We've all been at games like this -- 45 minutes after the first pitch, the starting pitcher is already close to his limit, he's barely recorded any outs and the game is on pace to go 4 1/2 hours.
Leyland had a few such issues back in his Pirates days, especially during games started by Bob Walk. Pitchers dilly-dallying on the mound are usually chalked up to little more than an annoyance, but Leyland recalled one particular night when he felt something needed to be said.
So Leyland paid Walk a visit.
"My girlfriend at the time [now wife] was at the game," Leyland recalled. "[Walk] was taking all day long. I said, 'You know, I'm dating this gal. And I really want to take her out tonight. But she has to be home by midnight. Get moving.'"
|"If you don't get this guy out, don't bother coming back to the dugout."|
|-- Joe Torre|
As Leyland has proven time and again, subtlety really has no place in baseball. Current Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recalled a game during his Rockies days when he felt the best way to diffuse the situation with his starter was just to lay it all out and hope for a happy ending -- one that would arrive in slightly less than four hours, 36 minutes.
Long games at Coors Field, obviously, don't happen unexpectedly. Most fans understand that. But there are those select games when the stands are packed not because of the game itself, but because of what's happening afterward.
Hurdle had one of these on his hands on July 4, 2008. Sure, the eager holiday crowd was happy to see the Rockies take the field at game time. But with fireworks on the brain, fans soon grew restless with the Marlins' 7-1 lead in the second inning, and with the snail's pace of the game, courtesy of starting pitcher Greg Reynolds.
Time for a mound visit.
"I just told him, 'Hey look, people aren't going anywhere,'" Hurdle recalled. "'We have to find a way to get some outs here. Just kind of stay in the game, because nobody's going to leave. And ... well, they're starting to hoot and holler a little bit.'"
(A nearly four-hour game ended up with Colorado on top, believe it or not, 18-17.)
Tactic 2: "I just want to tell you good luck. We're all counting on you."
You have to be a little crafty if you're going to take the motivational-speech route during a mound visit, because there's only so much time the umpire will allow before he's moved to break it up.
So Knute Rockne-type discourse won't cut it under these circumstances. The message needs to be brief.
These scenarios work out a lot better when the pitcher is more tough-guy than sensitive over-thinker. Joe Torre was grateful to have the former in relief pitcher Allen Watson, a rough-around-the-edges big-city kid with a grinder reputation.
Torre's walk to the mound lasted longer than the conversation. He handed his Yankees reliever the ball and said, "If you don't get this guy out, don't bother coming back to the dugout."
Point taken. Watson got the out and offered an exaggerated fist pump in Torre's direction.
Tactic 3: "A priest, a bench coach and a bullpen catcher walk into a bar ..." (the Jack Benny approach)
Humor can go a long way toward breaking up the tension. It probably has the longest-standing tenure among all the tricks.
The joke doesn't even have to be funny. Sometimes the element of surprise makes this method so effective.
Astros pitching coach Doug Brocail has resorted to humor more than once, usually when he senses a little extra tension in his pitcher.
Brocail had that in mind during an Astros home game last year when he went out to talk to lefty reliever Wesley Wright, who was a little miffed after an error and a flimsy infield hit led to an unfavorable situation.
As Brocail headed to the mound, he noted Wright's expression that screamed "go away." Catcher Jason Castro had a similar look on his face, creating a somewhat hostile environment as they convened near the mound.
"I just want you to know how sexy you look in your throwbacks," Brocail said. And off he went, back to the dugout.
"There are times when the panic starts and I cannot afford for the panic to continue," Brocail said. "It's an easy way to break the ice and let them know, hey, I'm on your side."
Tactic 4: "This ain't brain surgery." (Also filed under: A little perspective, please.)
The delivery of the message may vary, but the concept does not. Managers and coaches simply want to remind their pitchers that what they're being asked to do is not only doable, but it's something they've handled quite ably for the better part of their athletic lives.
"The way I put it is, we're not asking you to ice skate," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We're not asking you to come out here and tap dance on the mound. Or do ballet. Bottom line is we're asking you to do something you do very well. You have a talent for it. Let's relax and do it and live with the consequences."
"Relax." It's the easiest thing to suggest and the toughest to carry out. Brocail should know. A high-octane pitcher during his long career in big league bullpens, he seemed to have his share of struggles with the R word.
But Brocail is different as an older, wiser coach. He's kind. He's gentle. Sometimes, Brocail even reasons with his pitchers by channeling his inner yoga instructor.
By his own admission, Brocail often begins conversations with, "Let's take a deep breath. Let's all breathe at the same time. Everybody ready? Take a deep breath. Everybody breathing? Everybody all right?"
Tactic 5: Role reversal: pitcher talks back; manager is speechless.
Leyland sat in the dugout in Montreal, irritated, wondering why Bob Walk (of course) wouldn't just throw the ball over the darn plate.
It wasn't that Walk wasn't throwing strikes. He wasn't throwing -- at all.
Well, that's not exactly true. Walk was throwing, but over to first base. Over. And over. And over.
|"I said, 'Can you get this guy out first and then call your mama?' He got the guy out, went right off the field. I gave him a high-five and he went off to call his mama."|
|-- Dusty Baker|
As if he needed a reminder that the game was starting to drag (he didn't), Leyland had to listen to that stupid balkin' chicken the Expos would put on the scoreboard with every toss to first.
After what felt like 25 throws to first, a grumpy Leyland stomped out to the mound to chat with Walk.
"I said, 'What the hell are you doing?'" Leyland remembered. "He said, 'I'm trying to see how many chickens I can get up on that scoreboard.'"
Indeed, there are times a manager will be taken completely off-guard by the response he receives when he goes out to check on things. Phil Garner had his "you can't make this stuff up" moment with Roger Clemens, soon after Garner took over as Houston's manager in 2004.
He usually didn't have to worry about Clemens, who that year was on his way to winning his seventh Cy Young Award. In one particular game, however, Garner noticed Clemens was starting to labor a little earlier than usual.
Clemens was sweating, breathing hard, walking around the mound and taking his time between batters, which didn't make a lot of sense, given the Minute Maid Park roof was closed and it was a pretty comfortable 75 degrees or so on the field.
Concerned, Garner went out to check on him.
"I'm fine, Skip, I'm just fine," Garner remembers Clemens telling him.
That wasn't entirely true. A part of Clemens' pregame routine was applying medicated heat rub on his upper thighs. He did it himself -- with rubber gloves -- but apparently, on this day, he may have gotten a little, ahem, liberal with the salve.
"I got some up a little too high," Clemens said, according to Garner. "And it's killing me right now."
But Reds manager Dusty Baker may win the prize for the oddest mound conversation in recent history.
Sensing a good time to slow down the game a bit for his starting pitcher, he went to the mound and said, casually, "Let me know when the umpire's coming, so I can wrap it up."
Then Baker noticed the pitcher was staring straight ahead, blinking hard and looking a little bewildered. Baker asked what was wrong.
"I have to call my mom," the pitcher responded.
"You have to call your mom?" Baker asked.
The umpire came out to the mound, as umpires do when it's time to break up the conversation. Baker said, "Man, you've got to hear this one."
Turns out, the pitcher hadn't taken his ADD medication before the game. His mother had his extra supply.
"I said, 'Can you get this guy out first and then call your mama?'" Baker recalled. "He got the guy out, went right off the field. I gave him a high-five and he went off to call his mama."
Come to think of it, it was a scene that may have fit well in "Bull Durham."
Who needs Hollywood (or candlesticks) when the real-life scripts practically write themselves?